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The Scarlet Lettering of Christopher Statham

Foreign Law and<br>Free Press

Graeme Hamilton/ Beryl Wajsman

18 May 2006


Punishment denounced as 'scarlet lettering'
Vermont policy: Montrealer caught with pot told to write confession for local paper

Graeme Hamilton, National Post
Thursday, May 18, 2006

MONTREAL - Christopher Statham had worked late finishing a college assignment and was looking forward to a weekend snowboarding in Vermont when he and a friend rolled up to the border crossing one Friday night last February. In a flash, the weekend plans came crashing down, as the U.S. border agents decided to search the two teenagers and found about $25 worth of marijuana stashed in Mr. Statham's jacket. State police were called in and Mr. Statham, 19, was charged with possession.

Normally a misdemeanour arrest at the border would not make waves, but as part of Vermont's zero-tolerance drug policy, the young Montrealer was instructed to write a confessional article for his local newspaper. On Monday, under the headline "My stupid mistake," The Gazette published Mr. Statham's piece on its opinion page, next to a political analysis of Lucien Bouchard's enduring popularity in Quebec.

"I have brought lots of pain upon my family and I am in serious debt to pay lawyer and court fees," he wrote. "I have also severely inconvenienced my group of friends. I now realize that weed and other drugs are not worth the risk and just get people in trouble." The mea culpa was required under the state's diversion sentencing, which allows some first-time offenders to have criminal charges dismissed and the court record permanently sealed if they stay out of trouble for two years.

"It's more or less to make people aware that when they say zero tolerance they mean zero tolerance, and to get it out there that there are actual consequences for your actions coming across the border, and that it can have quite the impact," said Stephanie Bowen, diversion director for Vermont's Orleans County. "I don't look at it as shaming. I look at it as the people taking responsibility: 'This is what I did and this is how it impacted my life, and this is why.'" She could not say when the county began requiring the articles to be written, but said the last one to appear in a Canadian newspaper was about two years ago.

Beryl Wajsman, head of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal, denounced what he called the "scarlet lettering" of Mr. Statham by U.S. authorities. " 'Zero tolerance' is a policy that has no substantive statistical support and is nothing more than cheap sloganeering pandering to the most retrograde elements within society," he wrote in a published commentary.

Hardy Machia, president of the Vermont chapter of NORML, which lobbies for the legalization of marijuana, called the punishment silly. "It was a mistake on his part, but it's really a stupid law over here," he said. "The article should have been titled 'Stupid Laws in America.' "In an interview yesterday, Mr. Statham said he was surprised by how public his case became once the Gazette article appeared.

"When I said that they could publish it, I didn't really realize how many people would be reading it and all that. I guess it's out there now," he said. Mr. Statham finds the remedy harsh but said it is better than a criminal record. "They take it too serious in the States, I find," he added. Still, he kicks himself for getting in the situation. "You know, two teenagers going to a friend's cottage for the night to go snowboarding the next morning, the chances of us getting searched were pretty high. It didn't go through my head at the time. Now that I think back on it, it was a pretty stupid decision," he said. He faces $250 in fees required by the diversion program, as well as bills to his Vermont lawyer. The experience has persuaded him to quit smoking marijuana, he said.

ghamilton@mon.nationalpost.com
© National Post 2006

 



 

Vermont, Zero Tolerance, Drugs

The Statham Case:
Foreign Law and Free Press

by Beryl Wajsman, Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

" The security of oneís person against arbitrary intrusion by the state is basic to a free society. Any intrusion based solely on the authority of law-enforcement officials is inconsistent with the conception of human rights enshrined in history and in the basic constitutional documents of free nations."
~ Justice Felix Frankfurter

A young Montrealer named Christopher Statham was spot-checked, without any probable cause, crossing the Vermont border. He had no criminal record and was a regular visitor to Vermont ski resorts. Customs agents found that he had a small amount of marijuana in a cigarette pack and called the state police.

As part of Vermontís "zero tolerance" policy he was ordered to write a public "mea culpa" for his "crime" of possession. This demand by Vermont police authorities smacks of the worst excesses of public self-abnegation practiced during the vilest periods of Soviet Stalinism and repeated in the re-education camps during Maoís cultural revolution and throughout Cambodiaís Khmer Rouge rťgime. We should not countenance having young people stigmatized by revanchiste law. Particularly foreign law. We have enough trouble with our own nanny-state tyrants.

What makes this incident even sadder is that a Canadian media outlet, The Montreal Gazette , was used as the vehicle for this "Scarlet Lettering" by  American authorities and published Stathamís apology today. Our Canadian Fourth Estate became complicit in the perpetuation of statocratic interference in what should be a private affair of a citizen. And from where I sit, compromised the independence of the press. If we believe in separation of church and state we should have just as much fidelity to the independence of press from state.

 "Zero tolerance" is a policy that has no substantive statistical support and is nothing more than cheap sloganeering pandering to the most retrograde elements within society and bolstering the return of ineffective recidivist blue laws.

Recent history, from the time of Prohibition in 1920s America, has demonstrated that attempts by the state to engage in social engineering are doomed to failure. People will get what they want. They will engage in their pleasures. And if these pleasures are made illegal it will only strengthen the so-called criminal elements among us. The only proper role for state security is to protect citizens from violence and from threats of, or incitement to, violence. To protect us from each other, not from ourselves

Victimless crimes such as drug possession have no place in our criminal codes. On practical grounds these laws sap police resources better used against violent offences. On moral grounds they abridge the liberties each individual is endowed with in natural law as a birthright and these cannot be ceded to the state.

The new prohibitionists seek to enforce anti-liberal sentiments curtailing the basic patrimony of every human being to be let alone in the conduct of their private lives. Governmentís role must be one of persuasion and education, not compulsion and coercion, no matter how odious a citizenís personal habit may be. The dark-side of our governors is that they engage in unbridled intervention in matters of private domain to punish the governed into virtuous conduct.  But legislators donít know whatís right for us. They barely know whatís right for themselves.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter put it, " The security of oneís person against arbitrary intrusion by the state is basic to a free society. Any intrusion based solely on the authority of law-enforcement officials is inconsistent with the conception of human rights enshrined in history and in the basic constitutional documents of free nations."

Beryl P. Wajsman is the president of the Institute for Public Affairs
of Montreal.

 




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